Dorset Polar Bear Effigies

23 Oct 2017

The Dorset people were a mysterious group of hunter-gathers that roamed the Canadian Arctic between 500 BC and AD 1000. Named after Cape Dorset, where their artifacts were first discovered, the Dorset were master ivory carvers.

Their most frequent subject was the polar bear. Hundreds of ivory Dorset bear carvings have been recovered from Greenland and Northern Canada. Some experts believe that the bears are posed in seal-hunting stances. Others suggest that certain carvings, like the “flying bear” effigies, reflect Dorset spiritual beliefs.

Soon after the Inuit encroached on their territory, the Dorset disappeared, leaving only their enigmatic artifacts to speak for them. According to Inuit lore, the Dorset—or “Tuniit” were giants capable of single-handedly crushing a walrus’ neck and dragging the animal home.

However, they were gentle giants who kept to themselves. Art objects appear far more frequently than tools like harpoon heads and knives. Often, even Dorset utility items are decorative.

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